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A spike in homeless families

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The recession is changing the makeup of homelessness in America to include more families and more people in suburbs and rural areas. Private and public services for the homeless – concentrated on individuals and in urban areas – must now quickly adjust.

Last year, the number of individuals who used a shelter or other transitional housing in the US basically held steady, at 1.6 million, according to federal figures.

But the number of people in homeless families – typically a mother with two children – increased by 9 percent overall. Alarmingly, it rose by more than 50 percent in suburban and rural areas. In all, more than 500,000 individuals in families were homeless last year, about a third of the homeless population.

The nation can build on its recent success in reducing homelessness. Between 2005 and 2007, the number of chronic homeless – mentally ill or otherwise disabled people without a residence over the long term – fell by 30 percent, to 123,833. A coordinated nationwide effort was made to move from merely managing this group to helping them find permanent housing and assigning them case workers.

The needs of the chronically homeless may not mirror those of a family on the economic edge. But the overall approach must be the same: keeping or finding stable homes for them.

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